Friday, February 28, 2014

Guat's up in Guatamala

Our first stop in Guatamala was a small town on Lake Atitlan called Panajachel. We got up early on the first morning for a run, and luckily I had my phone with me; the view we got is the one above, thanks to the trusty panoramic function on my HTC One. First day was a relax and wander day as we were both suffering from a cold that was going through the tour group. Day 2 was a trip on the lake visiting some of the towns that also share this lake.

In the town of Santiago we visited a home that was host to the Maximon (pronounced moshimon). This is a little dude that is looked after by a different family every year, as was the custom back in pre-Columbian Mayan times. The father and son have to give up work to look after him and make sure he is available 24/7 for visits by the townspeople, smoking and drinking. He actually 'smoked' while we were there, with the son lighting a new cigarette and tapping the ash into an ashtray when necessary;alcohol would be poured into a hole in his mouth. The room was beautifully decorated with different coloured sashes hanging from the ceiling.

This town also had spectacular spice markets lining the streets, while another town was more alternative, where you could see and learn about the different herbs being grown and buy products using them, like shampoos and hand creams.

From there we went to Antigua stopping at the famous market town Chichicastenenga on the way. Luckily for us today was market day, and it was a hive of activity. Everything from hammocks, food and flowers to live pigs, chickens and puppies and the usual souvenir products. We ran the gauntlet and then took a more leisurely stroll around some of the town's other interesting spots like the colourful cemetery, before running the gauntlet back to our bus.

In Antigua we were only an hour away from the very active Pacaya Volcano. Even though we were still not feeling our best we could not pass up the opportunity to climb an active volcano. It was quite a steep hike up with some locals following with horses should you find the hike too difficult. We made it about half way, but as we were still struggling with our colds we shared a horse the rest of the way. The last section had to be done on foot as we took a trail around the more accessible parts near the top of the volcano.

The ground was hot and smoke was coming out of the top and in several cracks down the side. We could not get to the lip though as it is too dangerous; people have died from the ground collapsing underneath them. Elizabeth got in a hole in the ground that acted like a natural sauna and she did not want to get out. Everybody had moved on by the time I dragged her out. A loud bang made us look up while we were there and we saw a plume go up from one of Guatamala's other two active volcanoes. We should rename our trip Michael and Elizabeth's volcano adventure as the volcanoes we have hiked now number four, but this was the most active.

Tapado, the local speciality

Then onward to the river town of Rio Dulce, where we spent a wonderful night in a resort on an island and then took a river trip in the morning to Livingston seeing all the marvellous wildlife and the locals that still live along its shores. Lots of young children on very rickety primitive little wood canoes would paddle out to say hello. We stopped for lunch at Livingston where Elizabeth and I sampled their local specialty, Tapado (a seafood coconut soup with a whole fish in it), that took over an hour to make. You order then go for a walk and come back.

For scale one of our tour group
is standing in front.
Once we got back to the resort it was straight on the boat with our packs and across to the mainland to board a bus to an overnight stay in Flores and then an early start to the Mayan ruins at Tikal. These ruins, like Palenque, are tucked within a thick forest setting and the sounds of howler monkeys were heard regularly. To me they sounded more like lions roaring, the sound is quite imposing. Tikal is spread across a huge area with many of the ruins just mounds in the forest as they were reclaimed by nature a long time ago. It made me wonder if thousands of years from now we will be uncovered by the next civilisation curious also at how a once unbeatable civilisation fell to ruin. This site was the location for the rebel base in the first Star Wars movie, 'A New Hope'.

So ended our busy and eventful introduction to Guatemala as we went from there straight into Belize.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Natural magic in Mexico

Travelling in style
Only a short post this one. I wanted to separate the description of the ruins and the Mayan people from some of the more beautiful natural wonders we have encountered in Mexico.

Swimming in the cenote
While in Merida in Mexico we had a day trip out to the cenotes. These are underground lakes in caves. The transport to the cenotes was by horse drawn carriage along a railway track. It was only a single railway track, so if somebody was coming the other way one group would get off their carriage, physically lift it off the track and then put it back on once you were past.

The cenotes themselves were an experience. You would climb down into the cave, sometimes following a rough path, sometimes on a ladder, and go for a swim. Some were more accessible, bigger and more enjoyable than others. The water was crystal clear and warmish; stalagtites dangled from the roof. Normally they are lit by a naturally occurring hole in the roof, though one was viewed with torches. Unlike anything we had done before.

Misol Ha
Elizabeth and tour guide
at Agua Azul
On the day after seeing the Palenque ruins we drove to some famous waterfall spots. One of them, Misol Ha, actually had a track behind it so you could witness the effect from the other side; very cool and I provide a video below. The day finished with a visit to Agua Azul (blue water) aptly named with its very bright clean green-blue colour. It was a cascading waterfall that went for over a km. We found a nice little spot about 700m upstream and went for a swim as the waterfalls were punctuated by calm pools; though you needed to be careful as the current got stronger when you moved towards the next drop.

Agua Azul

Sumidero Canyon
While we were at San Cristobal we took a trip out to Sumidero Canyon. This was a two hour boat trip along a river with high walls on both sides, at some parts up to a km high. Along the way we saw many birds (including vultures), some monkeys and a few alligators.

So more a pictorial than a blog post, but sometimes pictures just say it better :-)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Mexican Mayan Mayhem: the fantasy, the past and the now

Back down to sea level we arrived at the Mexican city of Cancun, the ultimate tourist city. We were joining a tour (Tucan Tours' Mayan Adventure) from here but arrived a few days early. Tours are good if you want to cover a lot of ground fast in an unfamiliar area. We spent a day at a theme park (Xcaret) that focused on water themes. You could snorkel with sharks, walk underwater with a helmet on your head, see many sea creatures, birds and animals. Most interesting was the included show in the evening, a huge extravaganza on the history of Mexico. It began with a weird version of soccer where the players could not use their arms or feet and the goals were hoops on the side. It took a while but finally somebody scored and everybody cheered. We did not understand most of what was going on but it became clearer later, on the tour...

The tour began with a visit to Chichen Itza (not chicken pizza), a large Mayan city that existed from around AD 600 to 1200. It was impressive; the Kukulkan Pyramid is one of the first things you see and it is hard to take your eyes off it. It was voted one of the seven ancient wonders in 2007. The complex itself is huge with many buildings of significance.

The hoop for the ball game
The reason for the ball game in the Xcaret show became clear as we rounded a corner to see the great ball court for the Mesoamerican Ball Game. The Mayans believed that the gods required human sacrifice for the rains to come (and lots of other things), so they would play this game to decide which team's captain would be sacrificed; first ball in wins (or in my opinion loses). Historians believe the winning captain was sacrificed by the loser captain chopping off his head. It was considered a great honour to die as you contributed to the prosperity of the city. Personally I would be a very bad player and hopefully retire in disgrace.


Ancient Astronomical Obseratory

Palenque was the next Mayan ruin on our list and is truly magical. We arrived early in the day in a private bus to beat the mid morning rush. Tucked away in lush green rainforest, in the morning light of a cloudy, misty day it reminded me of Macchu Picchu in Peru. The city dates back to 226 BC and flourished for around 1000 years. It was absorbed by the jungle and only a few sections have been excavated and restored. Archaeologists believe 95% of it is still owned by the jungle.

Tomb of the Red Queen
In the structure called the Temple of the Inscriptions they found a huge sarcophagus in the tomb of Pakal, now on display in the museum on site. In Temple XIII is the tomb of the red queen. Using mercury and a red powder made from cinnabar the queen's remains and the tomb were all painted red. I wonder if the painters knew why they were getting sick.

So where are the Mayans today? Well actually, they are scattered in villages everywhere. One such village is San Juan Chamula in the Chiapas region. This village of the Tzotzil Maya people is autonomous; they look after themselves and administer their own laws. Sometimes mob justice rules. Visiting San Juan church is an eye opening, sensory overloading experience. We were not allowed to take photographs so I will try to describe some of it.

On walking inside the dimly lit church the first thing that hits you is the smell of the burning incense followed by the overwhelming thick smoke. As my eyes adjusted I noticed that the floor is covered in green pine needles and lit candles of varying colours. The place is filled with people wandering around and sitting in groups on the floor chanting or in silent prayer; there are no pews. As I walked forward I came across two women, one with her eyes closed and the other holding a live chicken which was being waved around the first woman's body. I looked back a short while later and the chicken was in the second woman's lap, head lolling on the ground, clearly dead. Animal sacrifice is still practised here. Other men were going around with a bottle of liquor distilled from sugar cane giving each person a small glass to drink. (One was passed around earlier in a house of worship; it was quite nice.) On the sides were statues of saints with mirrors on their chests to reflect evil. Also in evidence were numerous coke bottles being drunk and on the ground; apparently coca cola has evil killing powers. At the front on the ceiling was a depiction of Jesus with the sun on his back, evidence of the mixing of the Spanish-brought Catholicism and Mayan religions. Funnily enough you did get a sense of joy and a feeling of family pervading the church. I left to rejoin the modern world with the feeling I had just time travelled from 500 years ago.

Making Tortillas
Every different area has their own type of religion, many without the sacrifice aspect and completely different attitudes and customs. I hope my description gave a small sense of the experience.

Included Margaritas
Outside of these villages a more conventional existence is enjoyed by this majority Catholic society. We visited the large towns of Merida and San Cristobal where we had a brilliant time, the people friendly, the towns full of character and the food delicious.

San Cristobal
Big band night on Tuesdays in Merida

Train travel in Mexico? (just kidding, explanation next post)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Journey to the Middle of the World

Situated on the Equator at an average altitude of 2800m and surrounded by volcanoes lies the beautiful city of Quito in Ecuador. It is the highest capital city in the world and is also the highest city on the Equator, which gives it the title of the 'Middle of the World', and you can have your passport stamped to prove it. In 2012 we went to the 'End of the World' at Ushuaia, the southernmost city, but have been unable to find a city with the title of 'Top of the World'.

The actual X
First stop was a trip out to the actual Equator line. There are two X's that mark the spot. There is the fancy one with huge monuments, buildings and exhibitions, a price to get in and is the new location where they are building the South American version of the UN. Unfortunately this X is wrong by about 240m, which they discovered after the development of GPS. The accurate X is a small complex with displays of traditional huts and numerous experiments to demonstrate what being at the Equator means. Most intriguing was when they filled a tub with water and pulled out the plug. The water went straight down, without a swirl. A couple of metres on one side of the line the water would swirl clockwise and a couple of metres to the other side it would swirl anti clockwise. I did not expect it to be so dramatic.
The wrong X
Hemispheres Apart :-(

Then on to the main town which has an old sector that was equal first to be placed on the World Heritage List and is one of the best preserved in the world. Lots and lots of churches; there is a whole line of them working up to the Virgin Mary statue on top of El Panecillo hill. At night we went back to the old town to eat in the main plaza area and watched a performance of traditional dancing for a gold coin donation. Ecuador is reallllyyyy cheap with taxi flag fall starting at about 35c and the half hour trip to the old town costing $1.70. They will try not to turn on the meter and negotiate instead, but at those prices you don't mind paying an extra dollar.

The Virgin Mary on
El Panecillo Hill
One of the main things I wanted to do here was trek the Cotopaxi volcano to the refuge. But I suffered badly with altitude sickness and an initial 3 day headache. So what was planned for day 2 was put forward to day 7 (our last day) to allow me more time to acclimatise. I tried to go somewhere higher than where we were every day; the saying for climbers is 'climb high, sleep low'. So we went to high spots in town such as the Virgin Mary statue at 3000m or chose a restaurant on a peak. On the day before Cotopaxi we took the cable car up Pichincha volcano arriving at 4100m and started the trek to the top (4800m) until my headache got too bad. I lasted an hour and we estimated we reached about 4300m before turning back.

Wild horses on the way to Cotop
Volcanic Landscape
So on the day of Cotopaxi I was confident of being able to make it to the refuge at 4800m. The drive takes you to the carpark at 4500m. It does not sound like we walked very far, but at that altitude up a steep volcano your steps are really slow and very difficult. By the time we got to the refuge we were puffing like we had just run two back to back park runs (5km each). But we had made such good time, 15 mins under the average, our guide offered to take us up to the glacier at 5000m. We all agreed.

This was a good move, even though my head was bursting: the view at the glacier was brilliant, the shape and textures took your breath away, let alone the normal volcanic colours on the way up and down. There were some crazy young guys who arrived after us, and I will leave that vision to the video I'll post below. Going down took a third of the time, as going down steeply in volcanic soil is surprisingly easy. The soil is damp and soft but also firm; you tend to step into it and sink slightly which stops you from sliding, but not so much that the next step is difficult. It takes a bit of practice (we have had lots), so there were some slips on to their bums for the people around us.

Coca Leaf Tea

On the way back we stopped at a small museum for lunch. The warming and scrumptious meal consisted of chicken soup, a huge corn cob with a slab of cheese instead of butter (sorry forgot to photograph it) and a steaming cup of fresh coca leaf tea. That hit the spot.

Quito is a beautiful city that gave us some unique moments and has a charm that reminded me of Cusco in Peru. But allow the time, and maybe some pills, to adjust to the altitude when you come here, or preferably take land transport up and stay at several places on the way to adjust to it slowly.

Altitude sickness???

Trivia Note: Next door to Cotopaxi is the Chimborazo volcano. This volcano is the closest the Earth gets to the sun, closer than Mount Everest due to the bulge at the Equator. Measured from the centre of the Earth Chimborazo is higher but at sea level Everest wins. I just found that interesting :-)